How safe are Israel's beaches?

With summer upon us, funding and manpower are still lacking to reduce pollution dumped into the sea, but there is also some good news.

Palmahim beach (photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
Palmahim beach
(photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
The summer sun is on our doorstep. We can already smell the sea, the popsicles and the sunscreen. Many like spending the day at the beach, going for a swim in clear, clean water, and lounging on the soft sand.
While the Israeli public sector invests heavily in promoting skin protection from the harmful rays of the sun, it often ignores other health hazards, such as pollution that derives from waste and coliform bacteria.
However, one of the most serious concerns for nature-lovers and environmental activists is the problem of construction along Israel’s coasts. The Mediterranean coastline in Israel is 196 km. long, and 50 km. of it are closed to the public due to construction or other reasons.
“The two main barriers preventing people from accessing Israeli beaches are areas where fees are charged for parking, and construction on the beach,” says Yael Dori, planning director at Adam, Teva, V’Din.
“There are many projects that have already been granted building rights on the coast, such as on the Carmel Beach, rights have already been given to build four more residential structures.
In the best-case scenario, they’ll build hotels. In the worst case, they’ll build a huge resort. There are also plans to build on the coasts of Bat Yam, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Haifa, Hadera and Achziv.”
The Coastal Law, which was passed in 2004, defines how close to the water and what type of structures contractors are allowed to build. Within 100 meters of the water, only bathing and sports facilities and restaurants may be built. Within 300 meters of the water, other structures may be built, but not residential buildings.
Some builders, however, have managed to find loopholes in the law by using old plans that had been formulated before the law came into effect.
One such project is threatening Betzet Beach at Rosh Hanikra, which plans to build 350 holiday units, a man-made executive director of Adam Teva V’Din.
On the issue of beach entrance fees, there actually was improvement a year ago, with Interior Minister Arye Deri’s decision to ban charging entrance fees at public beaches. According to a recent investigation carried out by environmental NGOs, most beaches no longer charge entrance fees, but a few unofficial parking areas were found to be charging excessive rates to beachgoers.
There’s no doubt that the Deri decision could be the first stage of major change, but it’s not clear whether this ruling is being enforced at a large number of beaches. Also, if Deri were to leave his position as Interior Minister before the decision becomes law, then the decision could even be rescinded.
Awareness about sewage and sea water treatment has also increased in recent years, and the Environmental Protection and Health ministries have passed more stringent regulations.
Experts who have been researching the issue, however, have found that there is a tremendous lack of supervision and enforcement, and that local authorities are not allocating the funding and manpower necessary to reduce pollution levels and treat wastewater that is dumped in the sea.
According to the 2016-2017 Zalul report, this past winter, a number of Israeli beaches were closed to the public for a total of 310 days due to contamination warnings. Some beaches are officially open to the public even in the winter (meaning they have lifeguards on duty).
“And so, surfers who are out on the waves in the wintertime are not aware that they are endangering their own health,” warns Dr. Yuval Arbel, Beach and Sea Coordinator at Zalul. “In this case, beaches in Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, and Haifa receive runoff rainwater that have passed through city drainage systems and then are dumped in the sea. No one is monitoring pollution levels in this water, or even installing warning signs on the beaches as the Health Ministry requires.”
For example, on Tel Aviv’s Gordon Beach in February, Zalul found concentrations of fecal bacteria that were far higher than the permitted level.
“The beach was open to the public on the day the measurement was taken – people were swimming and surfing.
Findings showed that there were 69,000 fecal coliform bacteria in 100 ml. of sea water, whereas normal levels should be between 100 and 400. When fecal coliform levels rise above 400, the authorities are required to close the beach and prevent public access to the water,” says Arbel.
In most cases, contaminated beaches were closed by the Health Ministry, but there are a number of times when the seawater was determined to be polluted but the public was not warned about the contamination and the beach was not closed. In other cases, test results were not passed on to the authorities in a timely manner, and as a result, bathers were exposed to serious health risks.
For example, pollutants were dumped into the sea at Palmahim Beach on December 9, but a warning announcement about this incident was made public only on December 18. Another incident occurred at Kiryat Haim, where oil had spilled into the sea. It took three days for the Health Ministry to report this to the public.
ARBEL ALSO claims that people should be wary of the food they serve their families. Apparently, some fish that are caught off the Acre coast have high concentrations of mercury that are well above the acceptable level.
“This is the result of polluting activity that’s been going on since 2000 by Electrochemical Industries, from which mercury is covering the seabed.
From there, the mercury permeates into the groundwater and pollutes the entire Acre Bay area. The Health Ministry issued a directive to fence off the area and put up a sign that forbids bathing in the contaminated water, but neither has been carried out.
Crude oil pollution is another threat to Israel’s environment. Every day, oil tankers arrive at Israel’s ports and oil leaks pose health and environmental dangers of great magnitude that could paralyze the nearby desalination facilities. An oil pipeline leak that occurred in Ashdod brought about the closure of beaches in the area for 10 days, and oil spots were found as far away as Herzliya. The damage to fish, water and beach was enormous.
The Environmental Protection Ministry is preparing a program that would handle such incidents. “This is also a security threat,” Arbel continues.
“And our neighbors know this, too.
There is a tremendous amount of offshore drilling going on, and each pipe is a potential leak. We need to speed up discussions and pass legislation on the issue as soon as possible.”
Alongside this threat, it turns out that wastewater is still flowing freely into the Mediterranean. It brings with it pollutants, fecal bacteria, and high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, which alter the balance of the ecological system.
“We don’t have enough reservoirs to collect winter rainwater, and sewerage infrastructure cannot withstand the large amount of winter rains, and so it overflows into the dry riverbeds and then finally reaches the sea. The Dan Region Sewage Treatment Plant, the largest in the Tel Aviv area, funnels 15 million cubic meters of wastewater into the Sorek River, which eventually reach the sea.
The Environmental Protection Ministry needs to put an end to this.
Water and sewage corporations are supposed to upgrade their treatment equipment so that the sea water will not become contaminated,” continues Arbel.
A study conducted in 2015 by the University of Haifa found that plastic garbage thrown away by beachgoers comprises 92% of the waste found in Israel’s seawater, whereas the global average is only 75%.
BUT THERE is also good news. In recent years, following increased public criticism, awareness of the need for improved government enforcement of regulations has grown tremendously.
There have also been public protests against beachfront construction, which has resulted in the cessation of resort construction.
The most well-known example of a successful battle was the Palmachim beachfront hotel project, in which the prime minister even intervened.
Thankfully, the project was halted.
In the previous Knesset, an amendment to the Coastal Law was submitted, stipulating that permits would no longer be granted for old or renewed plans along the coastal area.
The amendment received 70 signatures, but was not voted on due to the Knesset summer recess. Environmentalists hope to renew debate over the amendment in the near future. ■
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
Originally published in Ma’ariv.